Yes, Depression Happens in the TV Newsroom, Too (Part 3: My Own Story)

Ten years ago, sharing this story would have been difficult.  Today, opening up about my personal bouts with depression over the past 26 years is essential. We don’t have a data base of exact…

Source: Yes, Depression Happens in the TV Newsroom, Too (Part 3: My Own Story)

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Yes, Depression Happens in the TV Newsroom, Too (Part 2 of 4)

Depression is often referred to as “the silent illness.”  The symptoms are often more difficult to spot than a change in a wart or mole.  One does not usually have a noticeable cough or respiratory ailment.  A torn heart or emotion is not as easy to diagnose as a torn ligament.

Depression is also a silent illness because of the reluctance for victims to admit they have it, or to risk the stigma—though significantly less traumatic and inconsiderate than 40 years ago—of telling friends or family members they need help.

When one’s profession is television news, image is at least occasionally deceiving.  The demand is to be thorough, authoritative and convincing to an often incisively-critical audience.  The image with viewers is cultivated over months and years of familiarity, often no more than 90 seconds per night for reporters.

Viewers often have inflated views of the salaries of local television anchors and reporters (and let us not eschew those producers, videographers, assignment editors and production assistants who keep the daily machine going).  The on-air faces and voices are not supposed to have down days, sadness, or the blues.  After all—they’re all on TV!

Yet, depression strikes often as the Biblical reference 0f “a thief in the night.” Not until late in his life did we learn of how depression affected a journalistic icon, Mike Wallace.

After a career largely in entertainment until “The Mike Wallace Interview” on ABC and “Nightbeat” on local New York television in the late 1950s transformed him into a relentless, grilling interviewer, Wallace became the signature image of “60 Minutes” from its launch in 1968 on CBS.

Corporate executives and politicians enjoyed seeing Wallace headed their way as much as coastal vacationers and residents thrill to see Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel walking down a beach before an approaching hurricane.

The image of Mike Wallace was one of the ruggedly handsome, mentally-tough, unflappable journalist who never had a softball question in his preparatory notes.

In January 2002, Wallace publicly detailed his own personal struggle with depression in a story for Guideposts.  Eighteen years earlier, Wallace became the lead correspondent for a CBS News documentary, “The Uncounted Enemy:  A Vietnam Deception.”  The controversial report explored long-suspicioned details of commanders during the Vietnam conflict underestimating the size and strength of the Viet Cong.  

Many of the pointed allegations in the documentary were targeted at General William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces in Southeast Asia from 1964 to 1968.

Westmoreland, at first, was highly critical of the broadcast.  Pressure after a TV Guide review of “The Uncounted Enemy” led to an internal ombudsman investigation that suggested CBS News producers did not follow prescribed network journalism procedures in all instances during the documentary.  

Wallace, himself, was not personally infected by the internal review.  However, he was well aware that as the face and voice of “The Uncounted Enemy,” his reputation could be potentially tarnished.

Gen. Westmoreland filed a $120 million libel suit against CBS and Wallace that went to trial.

“I felt I was on trial for my life,” Wallace told Dr. Jeffrey Borenstein in a 2009 interview.  The veteran correspondent listened to people he had never met and did not know attacking his integrity.  He confessed to being publicly humiliated.

The legal experience, Wallace said, led to his first major bout with depression.  

He detailed the progression in the Guideposts story:

Day after day, I sat trapped in room 318 at the courthouse, hearing people I didn’t even know attack the work I’d done…The truth, I was to learn from Dr. Marvin Kaplan, the psychiatrist I started seeing, was something I’d never imagined. My defenses were pretty much broken down by then. I told him about the trial; about the doubts that plagued me; about not being able to eat, sleep or enjoy the things I used to. “You feel as you do, Mr. Wallace, because you are experiencing clinical depression,” Dr. Kaplan explained.

Eventually, the depression sank to a depth that Wallace took sleeping pills in a suicide attempt.  Taken to a hospital, doctors pumped his stomach and revived him.

Immediately, he was sent for psychiatric treatment, though the official line from CBS News was that Wallace was “hospitalized for exhaustion.”

Extensive talk therapy and carefully-regulated antidepressants restored his emotional health, though he still experienced less severe bouts with depression in his later years.

Westmoreland dropped his lawsuit in 1985 after gaining negotiated admissions from CBS News about the lack of attention to network news guidelines.

Still, the entire experience had taken its toll on Wallace, who eventually returned to his 60 Minutes assignments.

That is but one experience of the pressures and risks of journalism that can lead to depression.  

The daily grind and constant exposure to death, critical injuries and the destructive side of life create a vulnerability to emotional illnesses and disorders for reporters as well as videographers.

Dr. Rony Berger, who directs the Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War has written extensively about the emotional challenges for journalists.

“They are at risk for developing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which include flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance behaviors, anxiety and stagnation responses, nervousness, sleep disturbances and excessive physical tension,” Berger writes.

Berger also suggests that depression and exhaustion are potential long-term effects for repeated exposure to traumatic journalism experiences.  “Continuous work in pressured situations can lead to burnout, which is expressed by emotional and physical fatigue, a feeling of being overburdened and helpless, cynical behavior and callousness towards others and the self, outbursts of anger and a general lack of satisfaction,” Berger writes.

In a research project for the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia Journalism School, Dr. River Smith, Dr. Elena Newman and Dr. Susan Drevo collaborated on an examination of the effects of trauma and stress on journalists.

“Journalists frequently bear witness to human suffering whether covering mass disasters or individual atrocities; however, little is known regarding the impact of such exposure on the well-being of journalists,” they wrote.  “Researchers in the field of traumatic stress are only beginning to examine the toll this line of work may have on the health of journalists.”  (See details of report)

The Smith-Newman-Drevo project strongly recommends news organizations to do more to provide emotional and psychological support for their staffs.

“This may include educating journalists about the psychological risks involved in their line of work, decreasing the frequency and intensity of exposure to traumatic news assignments, and providing appropriate resources for coping with the emotional toll of these assignments,” the report concludes.  “Aiding connectedness to social networks within and outside of the organization may also be of benefit. As the news room culture shifts towards increasing organizational support and decreasing organizational stressors the likely result is reduced risk of harm.”

Those are the examples of a journalistic legend’s experience with depression and the academic and psychological studies.  Now, for the practicalities.

After I posted the first segment of this blog on journalism and depression, I received a number of emails from reporters and anchors from around the nation, particularly in smaller to medium markets.

Interestingly, the ratio of responses were 4-to-1 female to male.  One young woman said she had been a reporter for more than a year but was having difficulty adjusting to the amount of violent crime she was covering.

“I covered four murders in my first six months and several other crime situations that resulted in near-death,” she wrote.  “I knew that would be part of it when I became a reporter, but I didn’t count on staying awake at night trying to put some of these situations out of my mind, especially when children were affected.”

That’s a perfectly normal reaction, but with some news executives who have a traditional mentality, it’s either get with the program and accept this is part of the drill, or get out.

Another medium market reporter wrote to me:  “I’ve been dealing with some of the kinds of depression you wrote about.  Unfortunately, my company does not have visits for counseling in our insurance plan and I can’t afford it on my salary.”  

I made some alternative suggestions, but that very email pointed out a genuine issue that some news organizations still do not have as a priority.  Our own Dr. Joanne Stephenson at Union University explains it this way:

Depression is no different from a broken leg or an abscessed tooth.  It just happens to be your emotions rather than a bone.  What people fail to recognize is that emotional illness can be brought on by a physical breakdown, such as exhaustion or lack of sleep because of trauma from repeated exposure to violent or negative situations.  If you had a broken arm or a broken leg, you wouldn’t try to set it yourself.  Neither can you repair what causes depression without help.

On the positive side, my former boss Dave Richardson told me when he was news director at WTLV in Jacksonville, staff members did have insurance coverage that took care of up to five visits for counseling.  In the period since my first segment, I have learned that this is the norm in a majority—but far from all—-local news organizations.

A friend who anchors in the Orlando market told me when the mass nightclub shooting erupted that took the lives of 49 people last summer, station management was quick to consider the emotional well-being of the news staff.

“Our management brought in mental health counselors to help our people cope with the tragedy,” she said.  “Many of these were experienced reporters but they had never seen anything like this.  None of us had.  Some of our people had to have time to decompress.”

Talk therapy helped a number of these journalists get through the constant barrage of followup reporting that continued incessantly for more than a week.  The psychologists were also on call for emergency situations.

Earlier in this blogpost, I referred to the Dart Center.  Through its work, Columbia provides targeted counseling services for journalists.  Among the programs is peer group talk therapy.

In a blog entitled Stress Points, the group sessions followed Brian Kelly, a Canadian videographer:

Since it is a common attitude in the journalism culture to “just get over it,” learning how to talk empathically to fellow journalists was very important. He recognized that despite the different age groups of people participating, his peers had different levels of experience with trauma, different responses to trauma, and a fundamental openness to talk about it with empathy and respect for each other.

Kelly saw that he was not alone in his post-journalistic emotional reactions and was helped to see that others in his profession had similar experiences after dealing with violent and crisis situations.

As I see it, an operative phrase is that prevailing attitude in the journalism culture to “just get over it.”  That is not unlike the view of many in the outside world in confronting depression with friends or family members.  “Just snap out of it” is arguably the most frequently-offered cliche by mostly well-meaning people who have no understanding of what causes depression.

One proposal I raised in Part 1 of this series was for station management to bring in professional counselors at least twice, if not four times, per year for news staffers.  Group talk therapy sessions potentially could ease some of the emotional strain reporters face (as well as assignment editors and producers who are often in the daily enslavement to the phone and the police radio, which can take an equal toll).  With the symbiotic relationship between emotional and physical illness, such sessions could serve to save companies money from reduced stress-related employee absences.

In my personal experiences with depression, which may well have begun in a mild fashion in the mid-1980s, I experienced the culture that if one succumbed to emotional illness, one is not mentally tough.  That may be a Nick Saban view or a baby boomer male-dominated perception of depression but Saban—contrary to popular belief in Alabama—is not a god and baby boomer males did not always get it right.

Just as we are learning more about the impact of concussions on college and pro football players, we are learning more about the impact of stress, exhaustion and repeated exposure to traumatic situations on emotional illness.

Journalists are in that line of fire every day.  For every story on bicycle safety in an evening news lineup, another reporter will likely be detailing a tragedy.

In the current week of this blogpost, reporters in Tennessee have been confronted with unexpected tragedies.  In Chattanooga, the news staffs are still dealing with a school bus accident that left multiple children dead and others injured.  My friend David Carroll, long-time anchor at WRCB, has some personal reflections on his blog.  In Jackson, Tn., reporters had to cover a Thanksgiving Day stabbing at—of all places—Pathways.  The victim, a female medical professional, died.  On a day when most cities Jackson’s size focus on soup kitchens reaching out to the needy and long lines for Thundering Thursday afternoon Christmas shopping, a woman who worked at a place dedicated to healing depression and emotional illness, was murdered.

If you don’t think occurrences like that at a season of year when we are supposed to focus on peace, goodwill and giving don’t sting journalists, you are sorely mistaken.

Should their assignments carry them to exposure and followups to similar stories day after day, an emotional toll is taken.

Perhaps my friend Carroll expresses it best in the first paragraph of his blog:

My heart is hurting. We’re still trying to recover from the terrorist attack of July 16, 2015.  Five of our finest servicemen were gunned down just sixteen months ago in our backyard, near one of our busiest highways.  Let’s face it, we still haven’t made sense of that horrible act.  We will always honor their service, and their courage.  And now this. A school bus accident that has claimed the lives of six children. But as any teacher will tell you, they’re not just children.  “They’re my babies,” they will say.

Victims and the families they leave behind hurt.  Trust me, journalists do, too.

Part 3:  My own personal battles with depression and how I began the road back.